Tuesday, 30 November 2010

My Month in Novels (Nov)

Another month gone. Reviews pasted from Goodreads:

1. Walking to Hollywood: Will Self

Self’s latest is a triptych based around three mental pathologies: obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosis, and Alzheimer's.

"Very Little" explores Self's permanent obsession with scale. "Walking to Hollywood" finds him investigating who murdered the movies. "Spurn Head" is a bleak walk along a crumbling coastline and a rumination on death.

The narrative mixes Self's psychogeography writing with mordant satire, surreal fantasy and personal reflection. The book's freewheeling absurdity is gloriously funny and insane, though the last part stretches the form to breaking point, and my interest waned as he sat discoursing cliffside with a Struldbug.

Packed with Self's wide vocabulary and unique prose pyrotechnics, this is his most intimate and verbose work yet.

2. McSweeney’s Issue 24

“Come Back Donald Barthelme” — A tribute to America's hippest short story writer. I read Sixty Stories recently and found myself in a state of amazement. These testimonials to greatness show I'm not alone in my amazement state.

“How To Make Millions in the Oil Market” — I can't remember a single thing about this story, though I read it only yesterday. I remember one hideous sentence, which I quote here: "Not even in Fallujah when he was with the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Cavalry had blamed them for their dead had anybody ever looked at him like that." Ouch!

“Stockholm, 1973” — A charming and witty telling of the bank robbery that lead to Nils Berjerot discovering Stockholm Syndrome.

“Bored to Death” — A grim but compelling story about the writer getting involved in a brutal kidnapping plot.

“Look at Me” — I liked this tale of a loser-becoming-a-hero-but-at-what-cost.

“Death of Nick Carter” — A story from the 1920s by Philippe Soupault. One of those curios McSweeney's likes to throw in to annoy or astound us.

“The Last Adventure of the Blue Phantom” — Starts out OK, but sags BADLY by being novella-sized in length and meandering about with no narrative discipline whatsoever.

I still wish McSweeney's would publish shorter stories in their quarterlies. If you don't like a piece, you are often stuck with it for thirty-odd pages, and that's your hard cheese. You're paying a hefty fee to be disappointed.

On the whole, though, another formidable issue.

3. Pastoralia: George Saunders

"Pastoralia" (the opening story) shows what Saunders can do. How his prose can be funny and surreal and warm and satirical and touching. Unfortunately, having done this, the other stories in this collection are shticky filler.

"Winky" was another strong piece, but I found myself snoozing through "Sea Oak" which does a surrealist dance in a ra-ra skirt, and getting annoyed by his rhythms in "The Barber's Unhappiness." His repetition, his rambling passages of superfluous detail, how he goes on so long you have forgotten the characters' names, but that doesn't matter, as they are barely rendered anyway, and so on.

Overrated, but who cares, he's part of the establishment now. Give him the Pulitzer, why not.

4. The Book of Jokes: Momus

Marvellous. It's from The Dalkey Archive, so of course it's marvellous. Oddness and perversion from the Scottish legend.

5. Tlooth: Harry Mathews

Perhaps the most baffling book I've read so far. Very playful and Oulipan in spirit.

(P.S. I'm not sure if its "Oulipian" or "Oulipan" or "Oulipoian". Forgive me).

6. McSweeney’s Issue 21

Hits: Rajesh Parameswaran, Miranda July, Arthur Bradford, Greg Ames, Joyce Carol Oates.

Misses: Stephen Elliott, Yannick Murphy, Holly Tavel, Kevin Moffett, Christian Winn.

The rest were somewhere in between. Rajesh Parameswaran's "The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan" was a strange wonder and wins my impromptu BEST STORY IN #21 award.

7. A Nest of Ninnies: John Ashbery & James Schuyler

This brisk entertainment is good clean fun for those who like reading about affluent 1930s aesthetes having gay adventures in Paris, New York and Rome. (That's not a huge contingent of the marketplace, hence this book's unknown status. I liked it.)

John Ashbery, Pulitizer-winning poet of some 83 years is apparently on Goodreads, by the way, a fact I doubt very strongly.

8. Reckless Eyeballing: Ishmael Reed

Another gloriously talented writer hanging with the cool Dalkey kids. This is a scathing satire on race, couched in a scathing satire on the NY theatre scene. Ian is a Creole playwright who finds his success by toning down his misogynist content to please the feminist crowd.

In this book, the characters wear their sexist and racist prejudices on their sleeves. Imagine a world where everyone spoke their minds and everything was determined by class, race and gender. Oh no, hang on . . . we're in that world. Oops.

9. Mavis Belfrage: Alasdair Gray

Tremendous collection of stories drawing upon Alasdair's days as a schoolmaster. Very dour and very Scottish and very weird.

10. Op Oloop: Juan Filloy

I have to give this five stars for the outrageously elegant language and fantastically insightful writing. Just wow. Wow with bells on. Wow to the translator.

Juan Filloy lived to 106 (died in 2000), and apart from writing refereed boxing matches and wrote 6000 palindromes. This would be an impressive enough feat in itself, but he also wrote this book about a Finnish statistician on the day of his 1000th sexual conquest. That's all I'm prepared to summarise.

OK, so the dinner party scene is too long but Op Oloop's meeting with "the daughter of [his] dreams" is unbearably heartbreaking. This book burrows so deep inside the psyche, it's no surprise to learn Filloy was pals with Freud.

Just wow.

11. 2666: Roberto Bolaño

A five-books-in-one monsterpiece from Chile's most profitable literary export.

Each book has its own narrative identity while retaining the Bolaño stamp: sprawling sentences savaged by commas, a free indirect style where dialogue blends with prose and narrative position hops from person to person, strange poetic waves of readable and glorious prose, and nasty sex.

"The Part About the Critics" is the funniest section, a real page-turning satire where a cast of lonely academics chase the spectre of the German author Benno von Archimboldi. This is where the Bolaño scholars get out their T-squares.

"The Part About Amalfitano" has made no lasting impression on my memory, but it is short and follows on neatly from the previous section, before the nightmare begins.

"The Part About Fate" follows a black sports journalist who finds himself investigating the unsolved murders in Santa Teresa, which form the core of the novel. The tone changes to the moody, horrific and powerful, subtly shifting into the detached reportage used in the next section.

"The Part About the Crimes" is the toughest (and longest) part of the book. Almost three hundred pages of clinical descriptions of gruesome murders, here the hot sticky hell of Santa Teresa sets your face on fire for a punishing tour through Dante's Inferno.

"The Part About Archimboldi" is a more straightforward biographical WWII story. The character could come from a Vonnegut novel, though the style is vastly different.

These are basic summaries. Within each section are hundred other stories and digressions, each entertaining or tedious depending on your mood (or how sore your thumb is). A few times in the book, the story moves from third to first person without warning and some sentences go on for pages. In other words, this is for very patient readers only, those willing to seek out the beauty and pain and love and torture at the heart of this outstanding book.

12. Watch Your Mouth: Daniel Handler

The UK paperback edition of this book has the ugliest design and corniest blurb I've ever seen, but the text itself is a marvellous linguistic whirlwind through incest, or imagined incest, golems, or imagined golems, and operas, or maybe novels.

I became aware of Daniel Handler through Stephin Merritt's band The Gothic Archies, and a mean-spirited review (by Lucy Ellmann) of Adverbs. Since I trust Lucy Ellmann implicitly, I read this instead. It is, quite simply, gleefully bonkers.

13. Galatea 2.2: Richard Powers

An astonishing masterpiece from a genius with a horribly schlocky name.

The reviews by this man and this guy are amazing, so read those for specifics.

14. Little Constructions: Anna Burns

This is an unbearable comic novel about an Irish crime family and their various misadventures, as told by one of the gang.

The narrator is a traumatised blatherer, more intellectual than your average Irish gang member, who tells the story in a rambling ironic style, painting the family as cartoon characters, killing intrigue with a relentless barrage of comedic asides, boring psychobabble and randomly capitalised character names, like The Other Policeman, and such.

Some of the humour is hilarious, and had the author exercised restraint and chosen a less inscrutable structure—leaping back and forth over twenty-five years, in and out of scenes, giving no sense of place or time—this might have been an outrageously good satire. As it stands, the narrator is unbearable, like a mad auntie having a nervous breakdown, going on and on and on until you want to tear out her vocal chords and bake a pie.

It’s clever and funny, but the end result is a densely packed swag bag of ambition that never coheres into something beautiful.

15. The Flight of Icarus: Raymond Queneau

A novel in script. Charming and hilarious and as cute as a button.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Huffing Great Love

Yesterday I was kidnapped. It didn’t bother me much. I like the feel of rope on skin. I like the passionate thrust of kidnappers, hurling me into vans, threatening to slice my ears off. It’s a good wheeze. You don’t get that sort of passion in the art world. No. People are too detached these days. Modern irony and all that. So I was kidnapped. My kidnapper took me to a warehouse and listed the ways he was going to cut me up. “I’ll slice out your tongue wiv’ a cutlass,” he said. “I’ll lob off yer ears wiv’ a hatchet,” he said. “I’ll take out yer eyes wiv’ a katana,” he said. He was very knowledgeable about knives. We spoke about his time in the kitchen dept of Asda. It was working there that drove him to madness in the first place. We grew close and pretty soon we were making huffing great love on the floor. He promised not to kill me if I played him “If I Were You, I’d Be Through With Me” by The Divine Comedy, from the LP A Short Album About Love. I kept my promise.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


Some things are nicer upside down. Last week I fell in the street outside Waterstone’s and the disgusting capitalist bookdump looked 90% nicer. Katie Price’s malfeasant turds steamed with more élan, as though her sickening assault on books was an illusion. Hey, I thought. Maybe life is worth living. Maybe I should keep writing stories no one reads for websites no one reads that pay nothing or working on a book that won’t be published because the publishing world is motivated by business not passion or love, and the whole soulless band of revolting succubi running the publishing houses will embrace me with open arms, and my sense of worth will balloon and my love for existence will attain new highs of smirking happiness and joy, and those hours sacrificing a paid career doing something proper that has left my CV in tatters will have paid off. Perhaps working in a world where bestsellers riddled with bad grammar written by rich twerps with no souls isn’t so bad, and taking great care with every word, trying to make something beautiful, something new and inventive, isn’t needed after all, perhaps I can scrape dandruff onto a sheet of paper and fax it to Jonathan Cape and tell the dolts it’s the newest thing baby, get with it. Perhaps if we shut up and stop chastising our mothers for reading Michael Macintyre or Dan Brown, we will harmonise as a species and the government will put money into the arts and people can do things other than making people buy drinks and food and clothes and crap and we can all move to Luxembourg and live happy in our wisdom.

Or not. It is that time of the year. The time to mix bleach with toothpaste and suck exhaust fumes. There is nothing good about December. Nothing. There is nothing good about our need to consume and shop and purchase, to gorge ourselves on useless items, to stuff ourselves with pap until we burst. Hate yourself. Everything about Christmas says: hate yourself. Hate the way the world has become. Hate that rancid bitch, Lady Capitalism. Hate your friends, lovers, dogs. Hate the whole bally thing. Buy chocolate. And hate. Buy more chocolate and sit there, gulping it down, belly distending as you hate, hate, hate, breaking off another square coz hey, why not, it’s Christmas after all.

I am boycotting everything this December. Everything. I refuse to do anything. I refuse to acknowledge the existence of pavements. I refuse to go sledding in thermals. I hate how Christmas boxes me in. Christmas is a manipulating force of evil that steals my freedom. It will vex me no longer with its shiny baubles and wintry claws. It cannot sell my heart!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Un, Deux, Trois


I have a bad relationship with long books. First, I am fidgety and impatient. I was raised on chunks and commercial breaks. Second, I only have fifty-odd years left to live. The first fifteen years I spent not reading books and I have some catching up to do. I can’t spend a month ploughing carefully through Infinite Jest, combing for Greek allusions in footnotes. I want to read and assimilate as much as possible before I die penniless in Penicuik.

I’m currently reading 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s thumb-breaking epic, weighing in at 900 pages. Although the book is brilliant, and Bolaño shows mastery of every technique we learned recently in class, I can’t help slipping into a coma. My leg starts twitching. I flick to see how far I am from the end. I look at the spine, measuring my progress in creases.

I really can’t endorse this behaviour. Genre writers like Peter F. Hamilton produce huge tomes so his fans won’t have to read any other writers (and because indulgence is permitted). High-brow pomo artistes like Barth or Foster Wallace adhere to the “literature of exhaustion” credo and produce artistic statements that could crush a toddler.

I mean, what is going on? What are we to make of such shelf-hogging narcissism?


Winter is approaching and I am in two minds. November and December are months of desolation and despair, when the year comes to an end and people get older and nothing interesting happens and my belief in humanity to do something remotely nice once in a while slips into a bin. My heart is a block of ice, so I have an affinity with subzero temperatures.

The problem with people is that they aren’t unreal enough. I want my real-life people to behave like characters in books. I want to meet that girl with the bird obsession in Nicola Barker’s Reversed Forecast. I want to have lunch with Deadeye Dick. Have a check-up with Dr Zack Busner. As long as people keep behaving properly according to their environment and role in society, the line between fiction and reality will never shift!

Misanthropes are innocent souls who know that all people want to do is cut their own slice of happiness from the pizza of human endeavour. No harm in that, but sharing a slice once in a while wouldn’t hurt.


After last week’s class I went home and pondered my first attempt at a novel, a behemoth called The Reason Not to Jump. What struck me was how I had planned the structure, narrative position and tone for each section in incredible detail. I had somehow mapped these things out without straining. It validated the belief that the best ideas happen when you are in your teens and everything else is an attempt to replicate them.

But of course, that’s bollocks.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Shortest Post...

... is this one.

(Oh, I forgot. My story "Breathe In, Breathe Out" is in Death Rattle Issue #1, in
print or pdf format.

My other story "How to Wreck a Human" is here at the Literary Burlesque. Hee-hee. That was subtle.)

Saturday, 13 November 2010

My Latest Book

Kim Shattuck's Opinions on the Partially Deaf

For the first time in Britain comes the US bestselling smash. The outspoken singer/guitarist from leading indie rock band The Muffs lets rip on our hard-of-hearing cousins with some outrageous thoughts.

“How come they get them fancy hearing aids?” she asks. “How come we gotta shout whenever they talk to us?” she asks. “How come they never buy my records?” she asks. “How come I’ve been in a rock band for twenty years and I’m not partially deaf?” she asks. “Do partially deaf people mind if I scream in their ears?” she asks.

M.J. Nicholls, author of The Fishbowls of North America, presents a series of refreshing and frank interviews that ask important questions about those with poor hearing. The book challenges all we know about partial deafness and asks that important question: is it really a disability, or are they just moaners leeching our sympathy?

The UK edition contains a bonus chapter of PC terms for the partially deaf. Among them ‘half-ears’ and ‘whatsits.’ Order
now from Gulchy Turk Books, £19.99.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Narrative Class [5]

Over the last few weeks on the course, I’ve been getting strong signals that my planning and practical application skills need to be bazookaed and built from scratch. This surprised me as I have always been a naturally analytical person, but less so for writing.

Today we discussed narrative position in depth and I felt lights switching on in those blank rooms in my brain. I’m not in possession of a clever, ingenious or fast-acting mind. I’m lucky to have been allowed into another university, frankly. I’m sure someone made a mistake. So when we are told about a crucial skill integral to our future as writers, I need some time to grapple with this concept. Not the skill itself, merely acknowledging this fact. I put this down to a pathological avoidance problem, but that’s another story.

We discussed the various nuances of first and third person narrators, ranging from interior monologue to detached, informational voices. How to shift between positions in the chosen narrative style was demonstrated by a story which goes from close third person narrator to omniscient within the space of a sentence. Reading the story again in this context really opened my eyes to the depth of subtlety it is possible to have in a story. It is also incredibly intimidating.

Today I felt knowledge and understanding dripping through. To avoid making a decision on narrative position from the outset only leads to bits falling apart, stories crumbling like unloved cake. I’ve decided to revisit a past project for the next assignment, which I’ve been sellotaping together from bits of gleaned information. I hope to be able to lay proper foundations—cement, bricks, stanchions, the whole caboodle—this time.

I feel confident about my writing most of time, but when there are glaring design glitches, things peter out and I’m left with more folders stuffed with stale work I can’t use. My confidence has slumped in the last month or so as a result. I’ve decided to switch to using paper and a pen for first drafts. It’s easier to make brain-scraping decisions without a cursor blinking at you all the time.

Scary as this may seem, there is a difference between learning technical aspects of writing in a classroom and applying them to your own work. The two sides of writing and theory can be symbiotic, so what matters, I think, is an awareness of the possibilities for how to tell your story, having the necessary technical knowledge at your disposal to make professional and informed decisions on the work, and to justify these decisions. This could be the difference between ‘aspiring’ and ‘professional’ writer.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Vaseline-Covered Coat

Last week I met an old college friend. We went for a coffee at the horrible Press Coffee shop on Buccluech Street, where a glorious bookshop once stood. I told him I didn’t drink coffee or tea or alcohol and he chortled at the ineptness of this decision. I gave him my usual spiel about coffee and alcohol bringing out the worst in people, losing conviction in my argument, flopping into general nonsense about my writing and so on.

As he left, I felt a pang of nostalgia for that period. Then something odd occurred to me. I’d always felt a pang of nostalgia for that period, even when I was going through that period. I was so conscious of having a “university experience,” those I’d seen on TV or heard about, that I spent the entire time sheened in a Vaseline-covered coat. Even when I was having a miserable time, I look back on the period with beams of delight.

It took me a long time to realise there was a difference between what was supposed to be good for me and what was actually good for me. Going to university was both appalling and amazing for me. I had the worse and best time of my life. (Sometimes at the same time, which isn’t easy). Meeting my friend has helped me divide my memories of that period into two boxes, rather than getting emotional for an imagined past.

I think it’s important to remember the low moments on top of the highs. Looking back on a sad time helps me humph through whatever curveball life has thrown at me, and I can get on with things. At the same time, if I block out the good times, my capacity for overall happiness and contentment gets diminished, so I try to garnish those moments too.

My foremost goal has always been to break through the confusing haze of everyday life. I don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be a human, so I take solace in the searchings of others, trying to find their place in a chaotic and smelly world.

(On the plus side, Press Coffee has delicious muffins).

Friday, 5 November 2010

Car Freaks

Who are those strange people who sit in parked cars at two o’clock in the afternoon staring into space? Why do they gawk at me when I walk down the street rambling to myself, trying to prepare the necessary phrases to use in basic human interaction?

Case in point. On Tuesday, I walked up the leafy suburb to cash a cheque. As I walked, muttering ‘can I cash this please’ or ‘could I cash this please’ or ‘could this be cashed, please’ I saw at least THREE passengers staring out at me. Who are they waiting for? Are they sitting there hoping someone might climb into the driver’s seat and drive them? Why do they always see me when I’m trying to be privately weird?

Let me tell you, being weird in this climate of prudence and common sense is not easy. Sometimes I want to sing along to pop songs packed into buses tight with silence. Sometimes I want to debate with myself the tone of voice someone used when speaking to me, and the implications of this tone on our relations. The only thing stopping me is the thin line between sanity and craziness, a line I am happy to straddle without medication.

I am also annoyed by cars pulling up beside me. Yesterday, walking a mile-long street, three separate cars pulled up next to me as I strode. For paranoid maniacs like me, there’s fear of being kidnapped. If I were a girl, I’d imagine the fear would be even worse. This abuse has to stop, like my interest in this post has stopped.